Two Woodruff letters seven decades apart

Who knows how a disgraced student will respond to adversity? In Robert Woodruff’s case, the full impact of the response took seventy years.

In the fall of 1908, Robert W. Woodruff, scion of Atlanta businessman and banker Ernest Woodruff, enrolled as a freshman at Emory College, which was still in Oxford, Georgia. His letters home complained of eye strain from reading, leaks in his ceiling, and shortness of funds. By the turn of the calendar to 1909, his prospects at Emory looked bleak. So much so, that the president of the college, James E. Dickey (no relation to the later poet and novelist), wrote to Ernest Woodruff to suggest that a pause in Robert’s studies might refresh him.

Dickey letter to Ernest Woodruff

More than a pause that refreshed, of course, this was the end of Robert Woodruff’s collegiate career. He began work shoveling sand at the General Pipe and Foundry Company, then earned several promotions and soon was hired by his father as the purchasing agent for Atlantic Ice and Coal. Robert’s part-time stenographer was William B. Hartsfield, who was studying law and later would become mayor of Atlanta.

The story of Woodruff’s rise from laborer to head of the Coca-Cola Company has been told many times. Fascinatingly, seven decades after Emory’s president wrote a letter dismissing him from Emory, Robert Woodruff would write to Emory’s president with another aim.

Woodruff letter of November 1979

This letter conveyed $105 million dollars to Emory for unrestricted use. The letter was read to Emory’s board of trustees at their meeting on November 8, 1979, by his younger brother George, an emeritus trustee of the university and the instigator of the idea for the transfer. It was the closing of a circle begun seventy years previously.

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